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The Best Animated TV Shows of the 21st Century, Ranked

From "Rick & Morty" to "Avatar," IndieWire ranks the best animated television series produced so far this century — for kids and adults alike.

Netflix/Cartoon Network/Comedy Central

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10. “Futurama”


Satirical and distinctly older in its fanbase, “Futurama” is Matt Groening’s worthy successor to “The Simpsons” in how well it creates a wholly different world and tone from its predecessor. Set in the retro-futuristic 31st century, “Futurama” is a goofy comedy that follows a series of mainly deplorable characters on board a Planet Express delivery spaceship, and like all self-respecting sci-fi, it offers commentary on the human condition and its many foibles, especially in regards to technology and society. Sight gags, off-color jokes, slapstick, and delightfully deplorable characters who can’t be blamed for being horrible (considering the wretched future they’re inhabiting) all make “Futurama” a pleasure to watch. But what makes this show sublime is how it takes pride in courting a little-served audience — the uber nerds — with involved references to math and science. We’d approximate how many jokes, but our numbers were skewed by our measurements. — HN

9. “Avatar the Last Airbender”/”Legend of Korra”

Movie? What movie? We don’t need no stinkin’ movie. Instead, we have three seasons of dense mythology, solid comedy and amazing anime-inspired animation, followed up by “The Legend of Korra,” a spin-off series which proved even more intriguing and progressive.

Here’s how good “Avatar” was: It won a Peabody Award. So maybe the best way to sum up why it was included on this list is the jury’s official statement:

“Closer in spirit and complexity to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy than the typical TV adventure cartoon, ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is an American-made, anime-influenced saga that draws its rituals and philosophies from Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu, Greek and Japanese traditions and its martial-arts styles from a variety of Asian cultures. Handsomely animated, with a stirring musical score, the series follows the odyssey of Aang, a fun-loving, 112-year-old boy who is the current incarnation of the Avatar, the spirit of the planet in human form. Aided by a band of adolescent and teen warriors and some fantastical creatures, Aang reluctantly accepts his role of bringing peace to a world at war. The series is distinguished by multi-dimensional characters, unusually complicated personal relationships for a cartoon serial, and a healthy respect for the consequences of warfare.” 


8. “Adventure Time”

Adventure Time

Far more than the fantastical adventures of a boy named Finn and his talking dog Jake in the Land of Ooo, “Adventure Time” is a surreal romp that is sophomoric in one moment and sage the next. On the surface, one can enjoy the cartoon as a series of perilous or bizarre exploits, complete with sword and sorcery to represent its Dungeons & Dragons roots. This belies the richer journey that viewers go on with Finn and all of his friends, that has resulted from some impressive world-building and carefully wrought character work. Beloved by all ages, critics and even the Emmys, this is a groundbreaking series that we’ve been lucky to access through the magical means of inspired creativity. Even though the show is coming to a close, we know that the answer to the question, “What time is it?” will always be “Adventure Time!” — SG

READ MORE: ‘Adventure Time’ Is Slowly Going Off the Air, And Everyone’s Moving On

7. “Clone High”

Clone High

Despite the high-concept premise (clones of notable historical figures navigating their way through the pitfalls of modern teen life), “Clone High” is, quite simply, a great high school comedy. Delivered with the same knowing, winking comic voice that would come to shape future outputs from the teams of Phil Lord & Chris Miller and Bill Lawrence, it’s a show that somehow manages to locate its gags amid the chaos of its own creation. Peppered with memorable supporting characters (there should be a place for Mr. Butlertron in every TV show, really), it still takes advantage of looping in characters from throughout global history, dressing them up in the anxieties and small-scale concerns of disaffected teenagers. They’re very special episodes, indeed. — SG

6. “Rick and Morty”

"Rick and Morty"

No animated show has ever taken full advantage of its sci-fi premise quite like “Rick and Morty,” the blissfully demented ongoing tales of a mad scientist grandfather and his impossibly unlucky teenage cohort. With galaxies filled by rainbow-colored ecosystems, all the way down to the simple distortions of one-off characters like the Meeseeks, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s inter-dimensional fever dream has delighted in pushing the boundaries of its own bizarre universe. On a pure episode-to-episode level, few shows can match the intricate plot machinations that send its two heroes to strange new corners of distant planets and suburbia alike. It’s the perfect blend of high-brow, existential dread humor and a main character whose every fifth word is a rumbling belch. It’ll change the way you look at happy memories, medical exploration, energy innovation, or even TV itself. — SG

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